A diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome depends largely on a complete medical history and physical exam.
Criteria for making a diagnosis
Because there are usually no physical signs to definitively diagnose IBS, diagnosis is often a process of ruling out other conditions. To help this process, researchers have developed two sets of diagnostic criteria for IBS and other functional gastrointestinal disorders — conditions in which the bowel appears normal but doesn't work (function) normally. Both criteria are based on symptoms after other conditions have been ruled out.
- Rome criteria. According to these criteria, you must have certain signs and symptoms before a doctor diagnoses irritable bowel syndrome. The most important are abdominal pain and discomfort lasting at least three days a month in the last three months, associated with two or more of following: improvement with defecation, altered frequency of stool or altered consistency of stool.
- Manning criteria. These criteria focus on pain relieved by defecation, having incomplete bowel movements, mucus in the stool and changes in stool consistency. The more symptoms present, the greater the likelihood of IBS.
Your doctor will likely assess how you fit these criteria, as well as whether you have any other signs or symptoms that might suggest another, more serious, condition. Some red flag signs and symptoms that suggest a need for additional testing include:
- New onset after age 50
- Weight loss
- Rectal bleeding
- Nausea or recurrent vomiting
- Abdominal pain, especially if it's not completely relieved by a bowel movement, or occurs at night
- Diarrhea that is persistent or awakens you from sleep
- Anemia related to low iron
If you fit the IBS criteria and don't have any red flag signs or symptoms, your doctor may suggest a course of treatment without doing additional testing. But if you don't respond to that treatment, you'll likely require more tests.
Your doctor may recommend several tests, including stool studies to check for infection or problems with your intestine's ability to take in the nutrients from food (malabsorption). You may undergo a number of tests to rule out other causes for your symptoms.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy. This test examines the lower part of the colon (sigmoid) with a flexible, lighted tube (sigmoidoscope).
- Colonoscopy. In some cases, especially if you are age 50 or older or have other signs of a potentially more serious condition, your doctor may perform this diagnostic test in which a small, flexible tube is used to examine the entire length of the colon.
- X-ray (radiography). Sometimes doctors will use X-rays to obtain an image of your colon.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan. CT scans produce cross-sectional X-ray images of internal organs. CT scans of your abdomen and pelvis may help your doctor rule out other causes of your symptoms, especially if you have abdominal pain.
- Lower GI series. In this test, doctors fill your large intestine with a liquid (barium) to make it easier to see any problems on the X-ray.
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- Lactose intolerance tests. Lactase is an enzyme you need to digest the sugar found in dairy products. If you don't produce this enzyme, you may have problems similar to those caused by irritable bowel syndrome, including abdominal pain, gas and diarrhea. To find out if this is the cause of your symptoms, your doctor may order a breath test or ask you to remove milk and milk products from your diet for several weeks.
- Breath tests. Your doctor may perform a breath test to look for a condition called bacterial overgrowth, in which bacteria from the colon grow up into the small intestine, leading to bloating, abdominal discomfort and diarrhea. This is more common among people who have had bowel surgery or who have diabetes or some other disease that slows down digestion.
- Blood tests. Celiac disease is sensitivity to wheat, barley and rye protein that may cause signs and symptoms like those of irritable bowel syndrome. Blood tests can help rule out this disorder. Children with IBS have a far greater risk of celiac disease than do children who don't have IBS. If your doctor suspects that you have celiac disease, he or she may perform an upper endoscopy to obtain a biopsy of your small intestine.
- Stool tests. If you have chronic diarrhea, doctors may want to examine your stool for bacteria or parasites.
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